Friday, September 08, 2006

late sunlight

Around this time of year, near sunset, I go back to the hill to criss-cross the steep short turf looking for the small wicks of Autumn Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes spiralis).

This year I found seven; an unusually good crop. The distribution is very skewed. In a typical year you might find 1-2 flower-stems, but once I found 90. When orchids have these lemming-years, the reason isn't usually apparent to a mere human.

Orchids aren't the only native plants that are prone to these sporadic bursts of flowering. There's another species here that's even more uncertain in its appearances. At least twice since 1990 Gentianella anglica (Early Gentian, a UK endemic) has appeared in its thousands on the eastern slopes of the hill in late May. In most other years there are only a very few, and often none at all.

The autumn lady's tresses grows a couple of hundred yards away, on the SW face of the hill. This also happens to be the main area for the autumn gentian (Gentianella amarella)which looks so similar to the other gentian, except it flowers three months later and unlike the early gentian is reliably profuse.

While I was ferreting around for those tiny orchid-tresses I turned a corner from cool shadow to the last copper sunshine and in it a dwarf-thistle had that electric effulgence that comes over magenta and purple flowers at dusk. Being otherwise occupied I ignored this and hunted on round other hummocks, grassed over spoil-heaps of the ancient quarry.. a few minutes later I turned into the sunset again and then I realized that I was right in the middle of one of those Wordsworth moments.

Fighting it down, I speculated on why this was happening and decided it had something to do with me being absorbed in labour - labour of a trivial variety. Few of us now ever get the chance to labour in such surroundings. It was because I had forgotten all about them, because I had other things to do and was not thinking about the beauties of a fine September evening at all, that I suddenly found myself taken by the throat, my nose as it were rubbed in visionary gleams.

When I was slowly walking home it was roosting time and I kept unsettling kestrels in the hawthorns. Then at a gap in the hedge I almost ran into two black bullocks - we halted, surprised, and kind of checked each other out. This pair had got left behind on some adventure of their own and were now calmly walking round the hill to meet up with the rest of the herd at their own favoured roost - a sheltered alley between hill and beechwood. You know how when you first meet another human person you instinctively carry out an instant psychological examination so that you can provisionally decide how switched-on they are? - surprised and still rattled by visionary gleams, I found myself going through the same motions and I must say they seemed pretty sharp. We generally under-estimate herding animals, we judge the individuals as grossly conformist (this is in fact another of our basic tests). But close observation tells rather a different story. The bullocks who are lucky enough to graze this hill don't even have the pathetic curiosity of penned-in stock. They won't change their route if you happen to be standing in the way, and I'm still making up my mind if this is genuine indifference or if they are maliciously aware of our uneasy shifting.


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